Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Butcher #10: Deadly Doctor

The Butcher #10: Deadly Doctor, by Stuart Jason
January, 1974  Pinnacle Books

Given that I’m jumping around in The Butcher, I thought I’d next check out one of the volumes written by the third author to serve as “Stuart Jason,” Lee Floren, who was apparently a prolific Westerns writer. He only wrote two volumes of The Butcher, this one and the next volume, so I thought I’d see how he compares to James Dockery and Michael Avallone.

The first notable thing is that Floren, unlike later series author Avallone, clearly tries to stay true to the template set forth by series originator James Dockery. Indeed one could almost be initially fooled that Deadly Doctor is the work of Dockery, albeit a very subdued Dockery. Floren is unable to match the grotesque dark comedy standard in Dockery’s installments, though he tries. But just like a Dockery installment this one opens with Bucher alone in the dangerous back streets of a city (Los Angeles in this case) while a pair of Mafia gunners tail him, looking to collect on that bounty.

Floren’s Mafia gunners lack the bizarro nature of Dockery’s, though again he tries to retain that feel. In this case one of them is notorious for shooting people in the back and the other’s a coward unless he’s hopped up on heroin. Bucher makes short work of both of them while constantly flashing back to his origins, from his break with the Syndicate to his taking out of the first few hitmen sent after him, and finally to his starting work as “Iceman” for White Hat. And meanwhile he keeps pondering this latest White Hat case: he’s to look into the disappearance of a famous doctor named Dr. Primo Marcelli, who was supposedly researching birth control.

First though Bucher has to be sprung from jail, having been arrested for killing those two gunners – another hallmark of the Dockery installments. From there it’s to chasing down the meager leads provided by White Hat. Bucher interviews an uber-sexy redheaded doctor named Marton Byers, who was briefly colleagues with the missing Dr. Marcelli; Floren has a good time detailing the woman’s ample charms as Bucher checks her out – like Avallone’s version of the character, this Bucher at least has a libido, and knows a sexy lady when he sees one. But Byers flees immediately after the interview and Bucher ponders this.

Bucher does a lot of pondering in Florey’s hands; whereas Dockery’s incarnation was a stone-cold bad ass, this Bucher often sits around and bemoans how many men he’s killed. You can also detect Floren’s Westerns background as Bucher often flashes back not only to past Syndicate hits which have the tang of Wild West shootouts, but also even refers to Wild Bill Hickock on occasion.

Floren also stresses Bucher’s piloting skills; here we learn that Bucher was not only in the Air Force (just missing combat deployment in Korea due to being too young), but is also a capable fighter jet pilot. This time he flies a P-38 (same plane model as his gun, something else he ruminates on) and an F4 Phantom. Floren really goes to town on the aviation fiction stuff, with Bucher at one point “having fun” by flying acrobatically over the desert. It’s all very reminiscent as the “plane porn”-type stuff you’ll read in some of the Penetrator installments of Mark Roberts.

Floren’s “plotting” is just as convoluted as Dockery’s, though. Bucher, in Phoenix, dodges hits from the brothers of the two men he killed in Los Angeles while chasing faint leads on the missing Dr. Marcelli. Mind you, we’re about 50 pages in and still have no idea what the doctor was even researching. Instead we have a repeat of the earlier scene where Bucher takes out one of the guys after him (a stupid, would-be comedy scene where Bucher tosses the guy, an LSD addict named Looney, out of a hotel window and then argues with a belligerent cashier over this act of violence…?!) and then has to phone White Hat to spring him from the police. We even get a repeat on how illegal Bucher’s silencer is.

So yeah, while Deadly Doctor is all very indebted to Dockery, it’s just lifeless in comparison. Floren seems unable to tell if he’s writing a spoof or a legitimate action novel. After a few middling adventures with his Phoenix White Hat contact, a young hippie named Apostle Paul, Bucher hops back in his plane and heads for Salt Lake City, where a disguised Dr. Marton Byers has supposedly gone. Meanwhile the other Syndicate villain, a sadist named Bruno Niccoli who gets off on hanging people, is also still apparently after Bucher…or something. It’s all very convoluted, I tell you. Floren is not the best plotter, at least judging from this book.

But then, perhaps Floren just didn’t understand the genre; it’s my understanding he specialized in Westerns, and interestingly enough Deadly Doctor is filled with references to the Old West. But Floren is very hamfisted in his writing; the novel is constantly stalling and repeating itself – Bucher is arrested not once but thrice, with the same outcome (and same shocked reactions from the cops when he’s freed) each time – not to mention the arbitrary backgrounds delivered for various one-off characters, including those we just saw get killed. But repetition is the most nauseating, though sometimes it’s played for comedic value, like the recurring joke of Bucher killing various Syndicate flunkies by tossing them out of windows.

As for Bucher, for one Floren is more prone to refer to him as “The Butcher,” unlike Dockery. But also we learn here that he’s fond of fishing and indeed there are many times in the novel where he wishes he could go into those lovely streams outside Salt Lake City and grip a fishing rod(!). Floren’s Bucher is also a lot more prone to rumination and introspection, constantly pondering his brutal life and the fact that he himself will inevitably be killed. Floren, again proving he’s done his homework, even breaks out Dockery’s patented “bitter-sour taste of defeat” line once or twice.

Still though, Deadly Doctor is nothing much like Dockery’s work, for the main reason that it becomes a chore to read. Indeed Floren reminds me very much of Russell Smith, not due to the wild nature of his book, but how he keeps stalling and stumbling and wasting time on pedantic, incidental details. And most of the details are redundant, like “water moat” and “switchblade knife.” It sounds like a little thing, but it builds up to a lot.

Floren’s also similar to Dockery in how he denies us any sleazy sex scenes. Busty redhead Dr. Marton Byers shows up again much later in the book and offers herself to Bucher, telling him a b.s. story about needing his protection. Bucher instantly deduces she’s a Syndicate honey trap and tosses her aside, leaving Salt Lake City to chase further go-nowhere clues. A few pages later he finds out that the lovely lady is dead, hanged by Mafia sadist Bruno Niccoli in punishment for not successfully conquering Bucher. Well, there goes that. After more banality Bucher finally deduces that the overall plot he’s facing has the Syndicate aligned with a fascist organization called The Musketmen, which plans to use Dr. Marcelli’s sterilizing serum in soda to depopulate non-white races.

We’re now in the homestretch. Off Bucher goes in his P-38 to Ecuador, which he’s figured out is where the Musketmen are testing their plan. The final pages still don’t give us the big sendoff we’ve been hoping for. Instead Floren continues with his low-brow, goofy approach. A corrupt senator named Oakes (who doesn’t even show up) turns out to be behind the affair, working with the Syndicate and the Musketmen to sterilize minorities or something. He owns a massive villa here in Ecuador, where the locals slurp down a particular brand of soda and wonder why their women can’t get pregnant. Without much fuss Bucher, disguised with skin-darkening cream as a native, slips into Oakes’s guarded villa.

Here, after killing a random guard, Bucher discovers Dr. Marcelli, a prisoner of Oakes and the Syndicate but insane now, likely due to the fatal injection he’s been given of his own serum. Bucher escapes with him, only for the doc to die, and Bucher sees Bruno Niccoli coming for him in his damned F4 Phantom. Bucher straps into his own and Deadly Doctor climaxes with an endless aerial dogfight between the two men. Yes, friends, this volume of The Butcher ends with an aerial dogfight!! What more proof do you need that Floren was not ready to ghostwrite for this particular series?

At least it caps off with a nice bit of poetic justice, as Niccoli, ejecting from his Phantom, inadvertently hangs himself on his own parachute strap. Bucher briefly tastes “the bitter taste of defeat” as he ruminates over dead Dr. Byers and the fact that one of these days he too will inevitably be gunned down by Syndicate stooges…but at any rate we readers can breathe a sigh of relief that this dud of an installment has finally come to an end. Unfortunately Floren returned for one more, the next one, but mercifully after that Dockery came back on board.


Zwolf said...

This was the first Butcher book I ever read. I can still remember sitting in study hall with it... Not the best one, but, it's got sentimental value. But, yeah, suddenly making Butcher an expert pilot is a bit odd. I guess since the guy usually wrote Westerns he had to take advantage of a modern setting as a chance to indulge in something he couldn't have done in his usual genre.

James Reasoner said...

I've always wondered how Floren wound up writing for this series. He was a very prolific Western author, both in the pulps and as a paperbacker, and he also wrote soft-core sleaze as Matt Harding. I'm not fond of his work, although some of his early Westerns are not bad. He wound up living in Mexico and was friends there with the legendary editor Earl Kemp.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. Zwolf, the book couldn't have been as bad as I made it out to be if it led you to being a fan of the series. I wonder what I would've thought of it if I'd read it before a Dockery book. And speaking of Dockery, James you might've answered your own question -- in that email from Ennis Willie you put up on your blog, didn't he mention that Dockery also lived in Mexico? Maybe he and Floren were friends down there, along with Kemp. And I have one of that Matt Harding sleaze books -- Las Vegas Madam, which I keep meaning to read.

James Reasoner said...

Joe, you're absolutely right. The Mexico connection must be the answer. Would have been fun to sit around in some cantina with Dockery, Floren, and Kemp. Here's my review of the only Matt Harding novel I've read, which I thought wasn't very good:
I wrote that before I knew that Dockery created the Butcher series, but I was already aware of Floren's connection with it.